The story of cannibalism that came true
Edgar Allan Poe was a prophetic master of macabre twists and turns. But most uncanny is the book he wrote about a ship wreck – and how life imitated art, writes Hephzibah Anderson.
Literary prophecy has a long, fervid history stretching all the way from ancient Greece and biblical Israel, and on into science fiction. Even the Beat poets dabbled in prophetic mystery – here’s Allen Ginsberg’s cry from his poem Magic Psalm: “I am thy Prophet come home this world to scream an unbearable Name thru my 5 senses”. Yet for sheer uncanny accuracy, there are few chapters quite so spine-tingling as The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Edgar Allan Poe’s only complete novel.
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A maritime adventure published in 1838, it’s chockful of seafaring staples like shipwreck, mutiny and corpse-strewn ghost vessels, along with hostile islanders and a genuinely alarming yeti-like menace. The book also recounts cannibalism, and this is where it gets truly weird. Poe summoned up in his story the same name of a man who, 50 years later in real life, would be shipwrecked and – exactly as had been described in the book – eaten by his fellow survivors.
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The novel is framed as a mock memoir in which the eponymous narrator Pym describes a perilous voyage. It all begins when, as a student, he becomes friends with one Augustus Barnard, the son of a ship’s captain. Augustus’s tales of derring-do on the high seas inspire in Pym an overwhelming desire to set sail, and after many a salty scrape messing around in boats, it’s agreed that Augustus will help Pym stowaway on his father’s whaler, the Grampus. Following a mutiny and a monster storm, Augustus and Pym find themselves in charge of the ship’s battered remains, accompanied by just two others, Dirk Peters and Richard Parker.
Even so, their ordeal is barely underway, and Pym’s 25-chapter story is still only halfway told, when the survivors – who’ve lived for days off little more than the rationed remains of a turtle and become near-delirious with thirst – are forced to contemplate the unimaginable: sacrificing one of their number to ensure the survival of the rest. In accordance with the custom of the sea, they draw lots to determine the victim; it comes down to just Pym and Parker, and in the end, it’s Parker who loses his life in the “fearful repast”.
There is an aura of all-round strangeness pervading Poe’s short life and enduring legacy
This was pay-cheque work for Poe – or so he’d hoped. Newly wed to his child bribe (who also happened to be his first cousin) and desperately hard up, he’d been assured by his publisher that readers preferred longer works. Yet the initial response to his novel was far from favourable. Some critics took exception to its lashings of violence, others to its nautical inaccuracies. Poe himself eventually joined in, calling it “a very silly book”.
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In the decades that followed, opinion began to shift. Jules Verne, conventionally considered the father of science fiction, liked it so much that he published a sequel in 1897, titled Antarctic Mystery. Poe’s book has also been said to prefigure Moby Dick, and has inspired authors from Henry James to Arthur Conan Doyle. Baudelaire translated it, and the great Argentinian short-story writer, Jorge Luis Borges, declared it to be quite simply Poe’s greatest work. And Yann Martel, let’s not forget, ingeniously named Life of Pi’s tiger Richard Parker.
So what of that macabre parallel between fact and fiction? Well, it went seemingly unnoticed until a descendent of the real-life Richard Parker brought it to light. Nigel Parker wrote about the striking similarities between Poe’s work and the subsequent fate of his forebear – about how Parker was one of four shipwrecked survivors, who ate a turtle before resorting to cannibalism – with Parker the victim. Nigel Parker relayed all this in a letter to author and parapsychology buff Arthur Koestler, who had requested from the public tales of “striking coincidence”. Koestler was so taken with the synchronicity that he published the letter in The Sunday Times in 1974.
It’s an eerie footnote that feeds into an aura of all-round strangeness pervading Poe’s short life and enduring legacy, that casts him as an archetypal tortured artist brushed by otherworldly traits. The episode sits alongside the mystery of his untimely death, at 40, just four days after he’d turned up delirious on the streets of Baltimore, dressed in someone else’s clothes. The idea that he could peer into the future somehow compliments his enthusiasm and flair for cryptography or code-making, which he incorporated into his 1840 story The Gold-Bug, and seems peculiarly of a piece with his long list of phobias, including insanity and the fear of being buried alive. He was, to quote JW Ocker’s award-winning literary travelogue, Poe-Land, “an angel of the odd”.
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Rationally, we know that it was one spooky coincidence, nothing more, and yet it captures the imagination in a particular way. There is a hardwired human nostalgia for a time when storytellers were also oracles. Moreover, Poe did display a marked gift for prescience. For instance, his 1840 story The Businessman features a narrator who survived a traumatic head injury in boyhood, and leads a life of obsessive order interrupted by outbursts of violence.
Eight years later, railway employee Phineas Gage had a large iron spike slice through his skull. He lived but with a radically changed personality, giving doctors their first glimpse of the role that the frontal lobe plays in social cognition. Their diagnosis of frontal-lobe syndrome was notably similar to Poe’s imaginings. Likewise, his final work, Eureka, a delirious non-fiction prose poem dedicated to Alexander von Humboldt, succeeded in anticipating a number of 20th-Century scientific theories and discoveries, including the Big Bang.
In terms of anticipating what would engage readers in decades to come, Poe foretold the modern horror story, unlocking Gothic fiction’s castles and dungeons and letting its psychological terrors roam the world of his readers. It’s with good reason that Stephen King calls his horror-writing peers “the children of Poe”, crediting the author with writing the first horror tale featuring a sociopath, The Tell-Tale Heart. Poe advanced, too, the emerging genre of science fiction, sending a man to the moon more than 30 years before Jules Verne did, and more than half a century before HG Wells.
He had more than a touch of the prophet, clairvoyant and futurologist about him
In 1926, when pioneering eccentric Hugo Gernsback famously attempted to define sci-fi – or “scientification”, as he dubbed it – he named just three writers: Verne, Wells and Poe. And, of course, Poe invented the detective story, an achievement that has made possible great swathes of literature and television, one that’s acknowledged annually by the Mystery Writers of America, whose gongs are named after him.
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Ultimately, it’s the nature of his celebrity that seems so predictive of the world we live in today. Because having been orphaned by the age of three, and having led an abbreviated, woebegone adult existence of grinding poverty, addiction and relative obscurity, in his afterlife Poe has attained fame that transcends his strange, slender body of work. He has become a huge brand, bigger even than Charles Dickens, Emily Dickinson or William Shakespeare. After all, what other author has an NFL football team – the Baltimore Ravens – named after his work? Not only do his works continue to inspire primetime TV series and bestselling novels, but many of them feature the author himself as a character, and his merchandise line runs to scatter cushions and ‘Poe-ka’ dot socks patterned with his mournful, moustachioed mug.
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“Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying,” Ursula K Le Guin once wrote. Poe was certainly a gifted teller of untruths in life and literature both, but as the grisly fate of Richard Parker underscores, he also had more than a touch of the prophet, clairvoyant and futurologist about him.
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